Subtractive Production of a Moral Commodity Along the Global Value Chain of Used Clothing

Sunday, June 26, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
258 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Emma Greeson, University of California San Diego, San Diego, CA
Most accounts of how actors manipulate goods to accomplish certain moral projects and goals deal with the symbolic, meaning-focused aspect of value creation. While it is undoubtedly true that symbolic mechanisms are at work, this paper raises the question of the role of material processes of ridding, wasting, categorizing, and sorting in these moral projects. Taking up the case of the global used clothing market, I focus on the material dimension of the symbolic moral work involved in the production, distribution, and exchange of goods. In this I follow Berndt and Boeckler, who write that marketization is a “deeply ambivalent endeavour…about establishing and severing linkages…incorporating and expelling places, people and things” (2010, p. 566). This paper describes how post-consumer textile items are transformed into moral commodities along the global value chain (GVC) of used clothing between the United Kingdom (UK) and Poland. In so doing, it addresses a gaping hole in the GVC literature; namely, the lack of discussion within GVC analysis of “how and by what processes value is created” (Gibbon et al. 2008).

This paper focuses on wasting practices and makes them central in the study of valuation, showing how the subtractive logic of wasting (ridding, discarding) is crucial in the process of qualification of a proper moral object in a market. Rather than focusing on the discursive and symbolic work whereby existing clothing items are framed as moral objects, I draw attention to the pragmatic, concrete processes whereby materials are made into suitable objects through processing, sorting, categorizing, and/or (dis)assembling. This perspective is a kind of “broken world thinking” in which “erosion, breakdown, and decay” and the resulting processes of making-do take the place of “novelty, growth, and progress” as starting points for imagining social processes (Jackson 2013, p. 221). I focus on valuation processes at different points along this GVC of used clothing and describe the ways that moral objects are created through the stripping away of unwanted material items or elements. In contrast to the additive type of production implicitly or explicitly central in most studies, this type of moral market object is achieved through a subtractive production process involving wasting and ridding.

Scholars of waste have recognized that there is a disconnect between the moral rhetoric surrounding the donation of used clothing for reuse and what actually happens once those items leave the possession of the original owner and become subject to market exchanges, often beyond national borders (Norris 2015). But it is not simply that in the source country there is one type of moral discourse, absent in the countries to which the clothes are exported; along the value chain there are various types of moral rhetoric that support market processes. Further, actors realize their moral projects through not only symbolic but also very material processes.

Most of the clothing processed by textile recyclers in the UK is exported for resale. I follow clothing along the GVC from the UK to Poland, the country to which the UK exports most used clothing. This paper considers the role of consumers and exporters, importers, wholesalers, and retailers. These actors make decisions that institute in practice the categories of waste and value that are culturally defined (Thompson 1979) yet still inescapably material (Gille 2010). They achieve their moral goals not just through bestowing symbolic meaning on pre-existing objects that move through the market, but through manipulation of existing material elements.

I describe consecutive points along the GVC to illustrate the practices and flows associated with crafting an appropriate object to sell. In a UK charity shop, volunteers and paid staff work together to discern which items are suitable for sale and are representative of the charity’s standards and cause. Items which do not fit this description are discarded as waste or passed along to a textile recycler. Choices about what to sell or discard are not made on entirely symbolic grounds; often, space constraints and pragmatic concerns about making do with what is currently available play a key role. Then, following the flow of clothes as they move along the value chain and closer to the point of export, I describe the workings of a UK textile recycler. This company is concerned with advancing a “green” and ecologically responsible agenda, portraying the firm’s activities as necessary and virtuous. Their job as they see it is to divert waste from landfill while simultaneously fulfilling the needs of their buyers. They do this by sorting the clothing items that they collect into various categories. The contents of some of these categories are destined to be resold (with the highest-quality and vintage items sold domestically and others of varying quality sold overseas) while others are sent to other firms domestically to be re-processed into wiping rags or shredded for insulation. Moving further along the GVC, I then consider a Polish importer of used clothing, which sorts items bought from the UK textile recycler and sells them in shops. Here, the central issue is not ecology but being an honest seller, a good and trustworthy counterpart, someone who is doing honest business. Sellers like this portray themselves as “good” and fair market actors by sorting clothing items into stable categories, making sure that polluting items that would compromise the quality of the categories are weeded out.

Berndt, Christian and Boeckler, Marc. 2010. Geographies of markets: materials, morals and monsters in motion. Progress in Human Geography 35(4): 559-567.

Gibbon, Peter, Bair, Jennifer, and Ponte, Stefano. 2008. Governing global value chains: an introduction. Economy and Society, 37(3), 315-338.

Gille, Zsuzsa. 2010. Actor networks, modes of production, and waste regimes: reassembling the macro-social. Enviroment and Planning A, 42 : 1049-1064.

Jackson, Steven J. 2013. “Rethinking Repair.” In Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot (Eds.), Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, Cambridge, MIT Press, pp. 221-240.

Norris, Lucy. 2015. The limits of ethicality in international markets: Imported second-hand clothing in India. Geoforum (in press). doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2015.06.003

Thompson, Michael.1979. Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value. Oxford: Oxford University Press.